“Reprise” is an opportunity for Moby to revisit the musical highlights of his life’s work in a completely new way. Together with Hungary’s Budapest Art Orchestra, he has re-envisioned some of his most recognizable rave classics and anthems. Some of the new versions are sparser, slower and more vulnerable, while others exploit the bombastic potential an orchestra can offer. Three decades into his career, “Reprise” is less of a Greatest Hits record and more of a chance to reflect on the way in which art can adapt over time to different settings and contexts.
30 years ago, Moby was an underground New York City DJ when he rose from obscurity with an electronic dance track called “Go.” His path from then until now has been tortuous and unconventional, full of dizzying peaks and dark night-of-the-soul troughs. But through it all, Moby has never stopped creating art from a place of curiosity, frustration, joy, and exploration. Despite having one of the longest and most idiosyncratic careers in modern music, and after selling over 20 million albums, he actually rejects the notion of even having a career at all. “I know it sounds simplistic, but I just really love making things,” he says, disarmingly, on the phone from his Los Angeles studio in the middle of the COVID−19 pandemic. “And, oddly, I don’t like to take myself or my career too seriously. I can easily name around 500 musicians and songwriters who I think are so much better than I am. At best I’m lucky that every now and then I work on music and someone seems to like it.”
The idea for revisiting and re-imagining songs from his entire “career” came about seven years ago, he recalls. At the time, Moby had finally accepted that he hated the big machine of major global touring. He started to do stripped-down acoustic shows in people’s backyards or small theatres. “There was an unadorned vulnerability,” he says of these small, humble sets, “and that emotional directness really appealed to me, especially contrasted to the manufactured bombast of a traditional big concert.”
After attending a Bryan Ferry concert in Los Angeles, Moby started talking with the booker for the LA Philharmonic. “She asked me if I’d ever be interested in performing an orchestral set with the LA Philharmonic, and I thought she was kidding. I said, ‘That’s for real artists!’” The booker disagreed, and in October 2018, Moby made his orchestral debut with a full gospel choir, Gustavo Dudamel conducting, and even Mayor Eric Garcetti on piano. A rep from the label Deutsche Grammophon approached Moby backstage with the idea of making an orchestral album, and he leapt at the idea. After all, he’d grown up listening to and studying classical music before playing in punk bands and making his own electronic music.
The recording of “Reprise” started small, as his records often do, with Moby alone in his studio; deciding which songs to revisit, and then coming up with basic orchestral arrangements. After leaving his small home studio, Moby went to East-West Studios in LA, recording in Studio 3 where Brian Wilson famously made “Pet Sounds.” After tracking piano and guitar and percussion and drums and chamber orchestra in LA, Moby decided it was time to move the production to Hungary to record with the Budapest Art Orchestra. At the last minute Moby elected not to personally go to Budapest, humbly admitting that with zero prior experience of recording an orchestra he would have just been getting in the way. “My position in Budapest would have been arbitrary and ceremonial,” he says, “I did all of the basic arrangements in LA and then handed them over to an orchestrator who actually knows how to get 100 classical musicians to play at the same time.”
The results of these orchestral versions have helped Moby further his ponderings on what ultimately is the utility of music, particularly music that doesn’t necessarily fit current trends. “Sorry if this seems self-evident, but for me the main purpose of music is to communicate emotion,” he offers, “to share some aspect of the human condition to whomever might be listening.” Although Moby admits to enjoying a few modern pop and hip-hop records, he is frustrated by the lack of sincere vulnerability expressed in a lot of today’s music. “As much as I like some modern music, I long for the simplicity and vulnerability you can get with acoustic or classical music.”
“I don’t want to sound like such an old person,” he continues, “but a lot of modern music rarely feels authentic to me. Every indie rocker wants to be perceived as being cooler than they are. Every hip-hop artist wants to appear tougher and more disaffected than they are. Every pop musician wants to be sexier than they are. Sometimes you just want direct, honest communication. Using acoustic and classical instruments allows you to increase the chances that direct vulnerable communication will be there. I don’t know if I achieved that with ‘Reprise,’ but that was the goal.”
The results are staggering in their scale and beauty. Whether it’s an acoustic strum and sparse violin strings introducing the gusty vocals of Gregory Porter and Amythyst Kiah on “Natural Blues,” or the brilliant Jim James lending a heartache to the lofty “Porcelain,” or even Moby stripped bare himself on “Extreme Ways.” Often accompanied by crying strings, these meditations gain brand new context, and speak as a testament to the original writing itself – the deep, wide gamut of emotion contained in Moby’s work.
“The Lonely Night,” with Kris Kristofferson and Mark Lanegan, is one of Moby’s personal favorites on “Reprise.” “Very few people know that song, but I love it so much that if someone at the label asked to take it off the album, even though I’m a pacifist, I would have been willing to get in a fist fight,” he jokes. His intention for the album’s track list was to strike a balance between the populist and the private elements of his music. “Every musician wants people to listen to the obscure B-sides, but it goes without saying that audiences want to hear the songs they know and love.” With the hits on “Reprise,” Moby imagined how he’d want to hear them re-worked if he were a fan. Regarding the new vocalists, Moby looks for emotion in a vocal before he looks for name recognition, or objective technical proficiency.
Moby himself struggles to pinpoint how the rekindling of these songs affected him, but he recalls that so much of the feedback he’s had over the years is that his music exists in a specific place between mourning and joy; a place of neither overt despair nor over-the-top celebration. “I’ve had songs that are very despairing, and some that are celebratory, but more often than not I guess my music lives in a bittersweet in-between.” “Reprise” exists in that space. It’s a celebration of the past, it’s a deepening of the present, it leaves open-ended questions as to what comes next.
One of the record’s biggest highlights is the cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” a song Moby cites as one of his all-time favorites; one he used to play in his apartment with Bowie himself, who was something of an older brother to him throughout their time living on the same street in New York City. “Covering ‘Heroes’ is like covering the Sistine Chapel or ‘The Godfather,’” he says. “'Heroes' is one of the top five most beloved songs of the last one hundred years. It is challenging and quite hubristic to cover. I simply wanted to cover it because I love it so much.” Mindy Jones’ voice renders it even more naked. “The experience of playing ‘Heroes’ with David on acoustic guitar is one of the most precious memories of my life,” he says. “The two of us sitting in my living room, drinking coffee. Sadly, David and I never recorded our version, so this acoustic version is my love letter to that memory.”
As a whole, “Reprise” is his Proustian love letter to his own idiosyncratic life and career, as well as an homage to the body of work that took him to audiences and places he never anticipated. At times there are quiet echoes of where it began – at home alone in a small room with a few machines. “The music I make is made in a monastic, austere way,” he says, “There’s a strangeness to writing something late at night by myself in a little room, having it go out into the world, and it taking on a completely different life. Back in the day when I’d go on tour playing a song like ‘Porcelain’ onstage in front of 500,000 people and having them all singing along I’d be thinking, ‘Huh. I wrote this at two in the morning by myself and never expected anyone to ever hear it.’”